British Proscription, America the Evil Twin
Comparing American and British English, the 2018 edition of the Oxford Companion to the English Language repeats verbatim the same observation from twenty years before:
Perfective forms. With yet and already, such perfective sentences as Have you eaten yet? and They've already left are shared usages. Such alternatives as Did you eat yet? and They left already are virtually exclusive to AmE, but may be regarded as non-standard. — Tom McArthur, Jacqueline Lam-McArthur, Lise Fontaine, Oxford Companion to the English Language, 2018.
Observation has become proscriptive grammar. Deprecating the past simple as non-standard for speakers of BrE with certain adverbs of indefinite time (already, just, yet…) has led to a false equivalency: since there is a British “rule” requiring one form, there must be a counterpart in AmE requiring the other. There is, however, no such rule.
To illustrate proper British usage, “American” examples are often simply invented by reversing the British rule, producing sentences no American would ever say, or at least not in the sense the example intends:
So, for instance, an archived BBC World Service webpage:
Did you ever go to Canada? [AmE]
Have you ever been to Canada? [BrE]
These two sentences ostensibly say the same thing in each variety, but they do not. AmE and BrE both have only one way to say:
Have you been to Thailand?
Have you ever worked in a restaurant?
I’ve never eaten escargot.
Whether you ask someone in Hull or Houston “Did you ever go to Canada?, their response is going to be “When?” “Did you ever go to Canada while you lived in Vermont?” would make sense anywhere.
This flavor of the present perfect, where one asks living persons if they’ve ever been somewhere or done something and they reply they have or haven’t is called the experiential present perfect. It is never used for the dead or for time periods completely past — like the time someone lived in Vermont and did or did not go to Canada.
The Real Difference
The Oxford Companion is not conjuring up this difference out of thin air: there is a common usage with the present perfect and an American option for the past simple, but only in one particular usage.
The English present perfect combines tense — an action/state in the past — with aspect. The action/state of the verb may
- continue into the present: She’s lived in London all her life.
- have occurred in the past and could occur again: the experiential perfect described above.
- describe a recent event: US celebrity chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain has died in an apparent suicide in a French hotel room. Sky News.
Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain has died at 61 in a suicide, CNN says.CNBC.
- result in a current state: He’s managed to open the window. She’s found the front door key.
In all uses except the last, there is no difference between AmE and BrE. BrE strongly favors — or if the Oxford Companion or your website has anything to do with it — requires the resultative present perfect while AmE may see the action/state as completed, thus the past simple, even with adverbs of indefinite time, or use the resultative present perfect as BrE in the same way.
In the aggregate, of course, this will mean that AmE will use the resultative present perfect less than BrE, which should show up statistically in a well executed database search. What those numbers can’t tell you is that AmE uses the resultative perfect differently.
The Microsoft Americanism
British Windows users, for instance, have complained about about an OS prompt:
It grates when a purportedly UK-English Windoze installation asks “did you forget your password?” rather than “have you forgotten your password?”
This has not escaped academic interest, as one linguist explains in a footnote:
The extent to which the simple past is replacing the present perfect in British English goes beyond the scope of this volume, but merits investigation. This usage seems to reflect the influence of Americanisms heard on TV series or in films or read habitually every day (e.g. the question ‘Did you forget your password?’ rather than ‘Have you forgotten your password?’ as one attempts to get in to Microsoft Windows).— Kate Beeching, Pragmatic Markers in British English: Meaning in Social Interaction, 2016.
The Windows prompt is asking a question about a completed action; British users expect one about a resultant state of having forgotten.
American Usage Explained
For many Americans, the choice of present perfect or past simple may depend on a perceived semantic difference between the two, the social situation in which the utterance occurs, or whether completed action or resultant state is topical. To return to the Oxford Companion’s question about food, here are two examples from American writers:
“…Why don’t we discuss your problem over dinner? Have you eaten yet?” “No, I was too upset. But now that you mention it, I’m famished. I’ll have whatever you're having.” — Tracy Sinclair, Seductive Sheik, 1998, 123.
“Did you eat yet? No, I guess not. You didn't even shave. You must have gotten up late. — M.K. Heffner, My Heart Can't Tell You No, 2007, 401.
The first question inquires about a state, hunger or its lack, to judge the appropriateness of the invitation and the likelihood of dinner together. The second asks about a completed action, a part of a morning routine, which, like shaving, has been neglected because of sleeping late. This corresponds to both the semantic distinction between the two and the social situation where I would expect to hear or ask these questions myself.
Have you eaten yet? I have extra pizza. state
Did you eat yet? If not, we can stop somewhere on the way. completed action
But one could also hear:
“Well hello Ms. Doris, did you eat yet? Would you like to join us?”
“Oh no thank you Ms. Grace, I already ate, about an hour ago, but thank you anyway.” — Sherry Spence-Brownell, Why Won’t You Believe Me?, 1999.
Now I’d imagine that Doris knows that Grace prefers an early dinner and thus is asking about an action she assumes is likely to have been completed by the time her family sits down at the table. If by chance Grace didn’t follow her usual routine, Doris invites her to dinner, if only to avoid a socially awkward situation.
The difference ultimately rests with how the speaker views the past action: either as complete or producing the resulting state. BrE only allows the present perfect.
The Deepest Difference
The most remarkable difference in present perfect vs. past simple in BrE and AmE has, as far as I know, escaped the notice of grammarians, likely because the circumstances in which it occurs are not remotely conducive to thoughts about verb tenses. And that is when Americans suffer a serious injury, they will yell, scream or curse about it in the past simple, while a Briton will do so the present perfect. AmE: completed action, BrE: resultant state.
“Joe, I cut my finger off.” The boys searched the grass for a bloody digit. Then Jennings discovered that the finger had snapped backward and was lying against the back of his hand. — Jim Dent (US), The Undefeated: The Oklahoma Sooners and the Greatest Winning Streak in College Football, 2002.
‘Sir, I've had an accident,' I said.'I’ve cut my finger off.’ He stared at it. ‘OK, Brophy. We'll have that fixed in no time. We'll find two prison officers to take you to hospital. Hold your finger back on.’ — Fred Brophy (Australia), The Last Showman: Lyka and the Great Barrier Reef, 2014.
I ran about five hundred metres with my arm hanging from just below my elbow and said, Mum, look, I've broken my arm. — Kevin Pietersen (South Africa-England), KP: The Autobiography, 2014.
‘Nurse,’ I cried, ‘I’ve broken my arm.’ The nurse came running over. She told me not to get excited, that my arm was quite all right. ‘I’ve broken it, I've broken it,’ I kept crying. I was given an injection, and I went off to sleep again. — Mary McGrath (New Zealand), The World at My Wheels, 1968, 110.
The pain in my arm, the cracking sound, the ball flying off course—my God, I broke my arm. I broke my arm. My left arm—my pitching arm. — Tom Browning, Dann Stupp (US), Tom Browning's Tales from the Reds Dugout, 2006, 175.
When the initial emergency is past and the resultant state becomes topical, an American may switch to the present perfect:
“What’s the matter, daddy?” he cried. “Why don’t you get up?” … “I’ve broken my leg, son,” Cyrus Tuttle told him quietly, “and I can't get up because it hurts me too much, but daddy will be all right if you can help him.” — Frederick Houk Law, ed., Stories of To-day and Yesterday, 1930, 145.
The American use of the past simple where British English uses the present perfect is limited but basic to the way each variety views recent events, including sliced fingers and broken limbs. Any notion that there is a general allergy to the present perfect in American English or that its speakers invariably use the past tense where it seems out of place to Britons is simply misinformed. Statistical analysis of even accurately assembled corpora — Google Books is, unfortunately, not one of them — cannot reveal the completed action-resultant state distinction even within AmE itself, much less in comparison to other varieties.
The resistance to Did you eat yet as an Americanism deprecated as sub-standard in BrE is puzzling until you think of the broken bones: that somehow the use of the past simple violates a deeper grammar than quibbling over adverbs.